Canadian soldiers frequently executed German fighters trying to surrender during WWI

The Gazette (Montreal) (9-22-06)

One of the country's leading war historians has amassed disturbing evidence that German troops trying to surrender during the First World War were "frequently executed" by Canadian soldiers gripped by fear or hungry for revenge.

In a lengthy article that appears in the latest Journal of Military History, the field's top scholarly publication, Canadian War Museum historian Tim Cook explores the complex and volatile "politics of surrender."

He found, in a startling number of cases, "unlawful" killings of Germans after they had given up the fight, laid down their guns and thrown up their hands.
"Becoming a prisoner was one of the most dangerous acts on the battlefield of the Great War," Cook writes.

His essay is filled with detailed accounts of prisoner killings unearthed from letters, diaries and postwar interviews or collected from previous writings.

"The pleading of mercy and the downing of weapons did not always stop the bloodshed," he observes. "The moment of capitulation for a potential prisoner was of crucial importance: Would the surrender be accepted or would it result in a bayonet thrust?"

In one example Cook highlights as "an inexcusable act of cruelty," a Canadian soldier escorting a group of German prisoners to the rear lines is described as having "casually dropped a Mills No. 5 grenade into the greatcoat pocket of one of the prisoners, which dismembered him seconds later."

He notes that "the desire for revenge was the most common reason why a prisoner might be executed."

Cook quotes an August 1918 letter from Lt. R.C. Germain to his parents in Canada that describes the grim aftermath of a bloody battle for a strategic ridge:

"After losing half of my company there, we rushed them and they had the nerve to throw up their hands and cry, 'Kamerad.' All the 'Kamerad' they got was a foot of cold steel thro' them from my remaining men while I blew their brains out with my revolver without any hesitation.

"You may think this rather rough, but if you had seen my boys go down you would have done the same and my only regret is that too many prisoners were taken."

Cook describes the war as one of "nearly unparalleled brutality" and stresses that Canada's infantrymen from the 1914-18 war are not being "condemned for their actions almost a century later by a historian comfortably employing hindsight and gathered material from the safety of an archives."

But he does target earlier generations of war historians for largely "burying this harsh reality of Western Front war-fighting."

And he challenges mythic portrayals of Canada's First World War soldiers as inherently more humane than their German enemies, or as patriotic innocents sacrificed to the seemingly senseless trench-to-trench holocaust that consumed millions of men on all sides.

"How does the execution of prisoners fit into this view of innocent victims caught in war's vortex?" Cook asks, concluding that "the Great War soldier was as much an executioner as he was a victim."

In an interview, he said the question of how soldiers deal with prisoners at the moment of surrender is still a controversial issue in the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.

That's why, he added, it remains important to analyze and understand from history the dangerous "grey area" between trying to kill an adversary one minute and, after he drops his weapon, "holding his life in your hands."

Cook's foray into one of the darkest corners of Canadians' wartime experience has garnered praise from fellow military historians, including one of the deans of the discipline, McGill University professor Desmond Morton.

"Canadians, in my experience, including veterans, wish to keep their distance from that part of their history and I don't blame them," Morton told CanWest News Service.

"However, I don't see the point of denying a familiar reality. I think that once soldiers have screwed up their emotions to kill, it is easier to continue than to stop.

"It is a time of acute mental disability, and a predictable consequence of sending armed men into harm's way."

University of Calgary historian Pat Brennan said Cook's "fascinating" study sheds light on the "emotional inferno" that engulfed soldiers of the First World War.

"The real insight in most of these cases is about what combat is really like, what fear is like and how difficult it is to turn that off in an instant."

Added University of Western Ontario historian Jonathan Vance: "What would surprise me is that it didn't happen more often."

Cook writes that much of the evidence of Germans being killed while or after surrendering came from interviews conducted with aging veterans in the 1960s for a special CBC radio series about the First World War.

"Dozens of Canadians testified to the execution of German prisoners," Cook said of the 600 interviews. But "none of these grim accounts found their way into the final 17-hour script."

Cook argues that some cases of Canadian troops stabbing or shooting unarmed enemies were the result of battlefield confusion.

"We don't have the adrenaline coursing through us," he said in an interview. "I'm not passing judgment on these guys 90 years later."

He adds Canadians were by no means the only troops committing such acts, pointing to "ample evidence" of British, German, Australian and "likely all soldiers" executing prisoners on the battlefield.

And he notes examples of Canadians intervening to prevent the killing of some prisoners, including one case in which an officer ordered a group of surrendered Germans shot because "there were too many discarded rifles" lying around - before a soldier saved the lot by suggesting they be used as stretcher bearers for wounded Canadians.

But Cook dismisses sentimentalized depictions of trench warfare, including the famous "Christmas Truce" of 1914 that saw enemy soldiers at one battlefield temporarily suspend shooting to mark the holiday.

Cook writes that the "cruel accounts" of prisoner slayings that he collected "are far different from our cigarette-swapping, football-kicking soldiers at Christmas, and to date there are few, if any, books, documentaries, short films or choir songs devoted to the killing of prisoners."